“This is perfect weather” said Mercedes Oller about the sunny, yet windy, day when I met her for this interview.
The 24-year-old had recently arrived from the US, where she’d been touring for the past month with her band Las Robertas. This all-girl (and guy in drag) band, arrived in the music scene less than two years ago and has achieved the kind of success you see about in sepia-toned independent documentaries.
After playing in small venues all over their home country, they exploded in the indie blogosphere, with a fuzzy melancholy that has made them one of those rare bands whose music breaks your heart while making you shake your hips.
Meche, as she’s called by her friends, is your typical young woman, or maybe not so much. A recent college graduate in interior design, her down-to-earth vibe and passion for anything that has to do with the arts is as infectious as Las Robertas’ tunes. Keeping up with all the references she makes takes a slight effort, but she does this unintentionally, in a completely innocent way. You know how there are so many artists out there who bask in their knowledge and speak like Tarantino characters; well Mercedes is just not like that and her humbleness makes her a sort of rock band oxymoron.
Coming from a very musical family (her brother plays in 424, but we’ll get to that later…) as a child she studied ballet and learned to play the guitar. She’s been in other Costa Rican bands but as she’ll tell you, the best music in the country is often obscured by the larger bands that have been playing the same thing for decades and have created a sort of blind allegiance that encourages forced traditionalism over friendly coexistence.
More than being a successful musician, Mercedes is also a “hardcore Josefina”, who loves her hometown so much, that any afternoon with her can turn into a personalized guide of “dos and don’ts” in the Costa Rican capital. She drives, but feels just at home in the city’s public transportation where she usually pops out because of her effortless but elegant style.
Sitting down for coffee, I ask her why is it that tourists have no idea that Costa Rica has such a rich cultural environment and particularly why is it that tourists have no idea about what San José is all about. The capital usually serves as a hub for the thousands of foreign visitors who stay in San José overnight before leaving for the volcanoes and beaches.
If you ask any of them why they don’t stay in San José longer, or quite simply not leave it at all, they will tell you it’s because there’s nothing to do in town.
Mercedes might be the person to prove them wrong. As a musician, she knows all the best night spots where you might be surprised by a neo jazz quartet or a moody punk band. As a designer, she can point out all the architectural riches and galleries that usually get lost among the serial-made structures in town.
With this in mind, I asked her to help me come up with some lists of music and places that you can’t miss in San José.
Top 5 Bands
If you ask anyone what they know about Costa Rican music, they’ll probably come up with some typical instrumental tunes or something like Malpais. When I asked Mercedes she chose this,
”They have great energy!” she says of the band where her fellow Las Robertas’ drummer Franco Valenciano, serves as percussionist. Mercedes thinks their “spontaneous rock captivates the audience and makes them dance”.
”Their music is so emotional, it’s a total mental trip” but don’t expect them to be all mellow and dull, Meche adds that Koi knows “how to put on an awesome live show!”
The Great Wilderness
Las Robertas’ Monserrat Vargas is also a member of this band, which Meche praises for their “intense sounds”.
“They’re probably the most popular band and they reunite the best musicians in town”, one of them being her younger brother Felipe. 424 recently became only the second band in history to have reached the number one spot in Latin MTV’s Top Ten. Their “great charisma and presence” makes them the perfect option for a “great live show”.
This project just recently made its first appearance in the Costa Rican music scene and Mercedes calls them her “new favorite”. She raves, “they have the best of the best! Best songs, best music, best performances!”.
Now that we know the bands, where can we find them?
Top 5 Venues in San José
This small venue is located right across from the National Museum and has become the go-to spot to see up and coming bands from all over town. There’s not much of an “ambiance” but its down to earth efficiency makes it quite an experience.
Jazz Café is perhaps the most interesting venue in town, they have a great food and drinks menu, often feature astounding bands, by the way it’s the San Pedro one, not the one in Escazú!
El Steinvorth, this hip lounge is located within a historical building in the heart of downtown San José. They usually have a different event each night of the week, their dancefloor sessions are particularly popular.
El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte
The place to be on a Monday night has become as chameleonic as the people who attend it. Weekends can feature bands that play every genre, from ballads to surf rock.
Sala Calle 15, this intimate venue is ideal for “unplugged” sessions and artsy events. Its location makes it a great spot to move on for after parties in hip bars and lounges.
I asked her how people were supposed to find out about all these concerts and impromptu gigs, given that San José is often plastered with fliers for metal bands, metaphysical events and such, but rarely showcases indie bands.
She recommended people checked out the bands’ websites and followed them through the most popular social networks or 89 Decibeles.
Keep in mind that most of these bands play just for the love of it, they are rarely sponsored and the ones that get signed with record labels are even fewer.
Of course, music isn’t everything, and Mercedes also knows the best non-music, spots to visit in town. From thrift shops to traditional diners, she gives us a look at her own private San José, the results might surprise you.
This diner is located in San José’s central avenue where it’s stood for decades. Mercedes thinks the food there is great, especially because of its convenient 24/7 schedule. While “gallo pinto” is the Costa Rican dish by default, you have to try the rice with squid from Chelles, which is also “great [spot to go to] after a show”.
This gourmet café serves what Meche calls “the best food in town”, its accessible prices, great ambiance and all over high quality make it a great spot for an afternoon coffee or an early drink. Mercedes is also fond of their gallery and store where you can buy unique pieces made by local and international artists. You can buy Las Robertas’ debut album Cry Out Loud here as well.
This little park sits right across from the Casa Amarilla and the INS in downtown San José and it’s very close to Barrio Amón, one of Meche’s favorite neighborhoods. She revealed being a fan of the park’s tranquility and its greenness. The park is also next to the Contemporary Art Museum which offers some amazing free concerts during the summer.
This is one of those places you would never find out about if it wasn’t for some local guidance. Meche says “this garage kind of bar [in Barrio La California] has the best music for partying”, they play bands like The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain and newer stuff. This would be a bar where you would find Las Robertas’ blasting out of the stereo all night long, also “they have cheap beer and drinks”.
As you might know, or not, the indie scene is best known for its DIY-ness, dressing up in vintage and retro style is the thing to do and thrift shops have gone from meh to cool with them.
Meche’s favorite thrift spot is this huge shop in San Jose, where she says you will find “great pieces, low prices and [wait for this…] awesome Latino music”.
Hmmm, perhaps it is all about the music in the end.
Check out Las Robertas’ debut album in stores now! Also, be sure to check out some of the best hotels in San José, who knows, you might even be lucky enough to catch an awesome concert nearby.
Filed under: Travel on April 18th, 2011 | No Comments »